Officials: Judicial Center has outgrown usefulness
From outside, the 133-year-old Aiken County Judicial Center looks pretty good for its age. Inside, though, the marble halls are packed with more than just history.
The courthouse was constructed in 1881 at the intersection of Park Avenue and Chesterfield Street.
Aiken County Clerk of Court Liz Godard has served in the position since 1985, and was working in the courthouse while it underwent an extensive renovation and addition, which opened in 1987. Today, the judicial center houses not only offices for the clerk of court in criminal, civil and family courts, but also Master-in-Equity, Probate Court, the Solicitor's Office, the Coroner's Office, two circuit courtrooms, two family courtrooms, one probate courtroom and judges' offices.
'Sitting on top of each other'
The renovation added a third floor to the original courthouse, which now houses the clerk of court for criminal court. The addition was designed to hold three employees but currently has seven or eight.
At one point, the same small area also housed the clerk of court for family court and child support, which Godard said put the number of employees there “in the teens.”
“That was a safety issue, so we had to get them down,” she said. “You just have people sitting on top of teach other. When we built it, we already had outgrown it by the time we got in.”
The lack of space for staff echoes throughout the courthouse, including in the Solicitor's Office.
“Their rooms are so small,” Godard said. “You've got a desk in there with a person, but that's about it. You can't have two or three people in there without them really being on top of the desks.”
With a shortage in courtrooms, scheduling proceedings is often a juggling act.
“There are times when I have three family courtrooms scheduled, so we try to work it around with probate court to borrow their courtroom,” Godard said. “If not, if one upstairs in circuit court is available, we use it.”
Typically, public defender offices are also located in courthouses, but the Second Circuit Public Defender's office is located in a separate building on Barnwell Avenue.
Space is also running low for records storage. Records from all cases and proceedings are maintained, and they rarely get destroyed.
Space in the courthouse basement used for file storage is now full, and the courthouse is now using space at the county administration building for file storage. File cabinets line the entryway to the Clerk of Court's office on the second floor.
“You have to go across town to pull files,” Godard said. “When a case has ended, that does not mean it's ended. You still have appeals, motion hearings. Your file is never ending.”
'We have to do something'
A new courthouse is an idea that may come into fruition in less than a decade, depending on funding and the progress of other pending projects.
According to Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian, the County doesn't have the bonding capacity at this time, and that kind of project would have to be funded by Capital Project Sales Tax funds. He added that a new courthouse would be a multi-million dollar project.
If a new courthouse was included on the ballot for the next round of Capital Project Sales Tax, and residents approved the referendum, Killian said funds wouldn't be collected until 2020.
“We know the courthouse is aging, and it's cramped,” he said. “We have to do something about that.”
Killian said there are other facility needs in the county, including a new Sheriff's Office and an addition to the detention center.
County officials have discussed constructing a new courthouse on the site of the current county complex on Richland Avenue. The County will soon move into its new building on University Parkway, and officials are still discussing what exactly they're going to do with the old property. Killian said the desire at this time is to sell that property.
There is an additional 50 acres attached to the property on which the new government center sits, Killian said, but that could be used for several different projects in the future.
“It was a good call on the Council's part,” he said. “That's 50 acres for future growth of the County or some other use.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.